It’s When I’m Crying That I’m Strong

I was having breakfast with a friend a month or so ago, and he was telling me about recent experience that had led him to tears. Big, fat tears of regret and pain and darkness. And, worse, it was in front of other people. So we talked about tears.

There’s a macho man myth that says “real men” don’t cry, that to be a “real man” is to be unaffected, to be a “real man” is to deny the things that hurt us, to be a “real man” is to brush yourself off and get back up again.

But, here’s the conclusion my friend and I came to: when we cry, when we embrace what we feel inside, that’s when we’re at our strongest.

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It takes no courage, no particular strength to avoid pain. Anyone can give himself to the pursuit of pleasure that denies or numbs the darkness. In fact, according to psychologist Terrence Real, in I Don’t Want to Talk About It, his book on male depression,

“There is a terrible collusion in our society, a cultural cover-up about depression in men.

One of the ironies about men’s depression is that the very forces that help create it keep us from seeing it. Men are not supposed to be vulnerable. Pain is something we are to rise above. He who has been brought down by it will most likely see himself as shameful, and so, too, may his family and friends, even the mental health profession. Yet I believe it is this secret pain that lies at the heart of many of the difficulties in men’s lives. Hidden depression drives several of the problems we think of as typically male: physical illness, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, failure in intimacy, self-sabotage in careers.

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And I guess if a man doesn’t want to face his pain and would rather numb and ignore his inner truth, it’s his prerogative. But, I know in my own life, when I don’t acknowledge my inner realities, it comes out in less-than-ideal ways.

When I don’t enter into that space of honoring my emotions, when I’m not brave enough to face my inner truth, when I cheat and make a bowl ice cream, binge watch TV, pour a glass of scotch in place of facing my inner truth – it comes out sideways. My wife, my boys, my friends, my employees – they pay the price for my cowardice.

So, last year on my Sabbatical, I determined that I would face some of my own inner demons. I named some of my ugly truths. Some of them I named only to God. Some I named only to Jennifer, some I shared with others. And I learned some things.

First, I learned that not everyone is safe. As a “verbal processor,” I too often feel regret for the things I say in a conversation. I’ve learned that not everyone is safe. That’s not to say that other people want to harm me, but I’ve learned in time that I don’t feel safe when people don’t reciprocate. In time, I will come to think that I’m being judged or “managed,” and I’ll grow resentful.

I’ve also learned that not all truths need to be said out loud. Some I just need to acknowledge my truth in my own silence and solitude. (I read a novel on the beach over Spring Break in which there was this great line: “Marriage is made of lies. Kind ones, mostly. Omissions. If you give voice to the things you think every day about your spouse, you’d crush them to paste.”) I’m thankful that Jennifer doesn’t name all her truths to me!

And I’ve learned that I’m not a “wallower.” I don’t like to stay in tearful places very long. But I at least need to acknowledge my hurts, my brokenness, my sin – whatever darkness there is – and I need to feel it so I can get up and move on.

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So, here’s my manifesto:

When I cry, I am strong. When I name my doubts, when I embrace my failures. When I’m neither dismissive nor wallowing, when I choose to wrestle with the hard stuff, when I come back and apologize when I’m wrong, that is the true Charlie being his bravest self.

When I avoid, when I run, when I hide, when I choose to numb my pain. When I refuse to say “I’m sorry,” when I say the words, “I don’t want to talk about it”; when I try to be a macho, successful, American male who is unaffected by unkind words, intentional (or even unintentional) slights, heartache and rejection, that’s Charlie being his most cowardly.

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One final thing:

I’m fortunate that along the way, I’ve made plenty of friends like me. Men who are willing to be brave, to deal with their darkness. Men, who out of their love for themselves, their wives, their children, their friends are willing to be their bravest selves.

You know who you are. We’ve cried in restaurants, hugged in parking lots and declared our love for each other. Thank you.

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We’re Always Changing Our Minds

“I am not worried – I am not overly concerned

with the status of my emotions

“oh”, She says, “you’re changing.”

But we’re always changing”

– The Counting Crows, “Anna Begins”

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I remember in my teens, a not-yet-famous young earth creationist came to my Christian high school to preach his gospel of literal, six-day creation against the apostasy of evolution. I remember in my formative years, if I visited a museum and it said, “20 million years ago…” I would roll my eyes and maybe even say (with air quotes and a sneer), “At least that’s what ‘scientists’ say.”

Of course, this spilled to many other areas. Whenever “scientists” (air quotes, eye roll and sneer) said anything that conflicted with my beliefs, I was conditioned to dismiss them as godless pagans, interested only in upending my conservative beliefs.

Embarrassingly, it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I actually started to do a little reading and listening to what scientists actually said (versus what I was told they said) and found out that while there may be wild idealogues out there, most scientists are driven by a pursuit of knowledge and, to a degree unheard of in my religious upbringing, are willing to change their beliefs as new evidence comes to light.

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Recently, I was catching up on a past issue of National Geographic, reading an article about the discovery of homo naledi, an animal that appears to be much closer to homo erectus than australopithecus aferensis (“Lucy”), and in many ways appears to have blurred the lines between “animal” and “human” (for example, the upper body seems to be closer to an ape, while the lower body is remarkably similar to our own).

It was fascinating to read about the process of accidental discovery, in a cave near Johannesburg, South Africa, by two amateur spelunkers and the subsequent discussion of evolutionary theory that is erupting burgeoning due to the discovery of this new species. Homo naledi doesn’t answer all our questions, or end the argument or close any discussion. Rather, its discovery ignites entirely new questions and conversations.

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I recently finished a book on intimacy and marriage by Terrence Real called How Can I Get Through to You? and one of the skills that Real says is necessary for any marriage is flexibility – the ability to come at a problem from different angles, to change up one’s thinking in response to the other. He says of his wife, “what works is her flexibility, her willingness to try different tacks coupled with responsiveness.

You know, flexibility is such a good people skill. It’s good in marriage, it’s good in parenting, it’s good in a friendship. But it will probably lose you an election if you’re a politician, and if you’re a pastor or theologian, people sometimes go crazy when you change your mind. They often call you names (heretic!) and declare you “not-one-of-us.”

But that’s what life should be: staying open and flexible to new ideas and experience and, when it’s warranted, changing one’s mind. As I experience life, I learn new things about myself, about God, about wonder, about the world, about people, and it changes the way I think and the way I act. There are so many ways my mind has changed over the years about tons of things. I just see things in ways I never could have in my twenties or thirties.

I have this graphic that I’ve had on my desktop for a couple months:

 

Ain’t that the truth?

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The Scriptures are full of people who encountered the Divine, faced new circumstances and were flexible in their response. Peter ate with Gentiles after having a vision while hanging out on a roof. Abraham left Ur, Philip reached out to the eunuch, Paul got knocked off a horse and changed the trajectory of his life. I think this is what followers of Jesus always do, they pay attention to themselves, to the world and ask again, what does it mean to follow Jesus now?

So, what’s at your leading edge today? What are you learning? What are you growing in? How have your circumstances changed and where do you need to be flexible? How do you need to adjust your theories and ideas because of new experiences and circumstances?

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